Saturday, February 18, 2017

Springing up

It's spring!
Yeah, I know, it's the middle of February.
The weather, though, is very springlike... mid- to late-springlike.
I discovered these little crocus popping up in front of the house a few days ago. Since then they've opened to full and I've found more things starting to pop through the ground, like a tiny cluster of winter aconite. Is that all the winter aconite I'll have this year? Last year several clusters were scattered about. I hope a few more appear.

With such warm weather over this past week and more in the forecast, I am seriously considering putting some seeds in the ground. I might start with spinach, since it much prefers sprouting in cooler soil. Yesterday I moved some of the hay mulch and found lovely little spinach plants where I'd planted them last fall -- not many, because I had trouble getting much germination, but we'll have a bit of early spinach. Carrots, beets and a few others also might get planted, whatever stands a chance of surviving if we get some late cold weather in April. I hesitate planting, though, because it has also been very dry -- not a good companion for being unusually warm.

Even though the weather is springlike, I am still in the midst of winter chores. Last week I pruned the elderberries -- severely pruned them. Yet I wonder if that was even severe enough. At least they won't get quite so overgrown this year. Elderberries can get a little unruly. They send up multiple suckers throughout the growing season. If I can keep up with cutting back the suckers I don't want through mid- to late-spring, I can keep some moderate control. The suckers slow down during the summer. That can be a tricky prospect since spring is the time I've got so much other stuff to do, but I do my best.

I love my elderberries, which are the native species and grow as large shrubs. The berries make a wondrous jam and provide many nutrients, as well as being touted as a flu preventative. Most of the research in this area has been done on products made with the European elder berry (Sambucus nigra), but the American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is considered to possess similar properties. The flavor of the berry doesn't lend well to fresh eating, especially since the seed contains a toxin that can cause digestive issues, so they shouldn't be eaten fresh in more than small handful doses. However, the toxin is destroyed by heat, so cooked, ripe berries are perfectly safe and lend themselves well to cooked dishes, especially when blended with other, sweeter fruits.

My elderberry jam is seasoned with cinnamon, clove and cardamom, and acidified with lemon juice, which complements the elderberry's flavor nicely. I sweeten with honey, in much lower quantities than typical jam and jelly recipes require. When I use those larger amounts of sweetener I taste nothing but sugar. The point of jams and jellies is to taste the fruit. So I use a pectin that gels with low sugar quantities or no sugar at all. One combination that I've found to be quite nice is to mix gooseberries with the elderberries. Love it.

The European elder has a great history and is the subject of much legend and folklore, which I will discuss in a future post. The magical and medicinal associations with the elderberry were what first got me interested in growing it. But it's also a gorgeous shrub, especially when it blooms mid-summer. My enthusiasm for it does not diminish at all when I'm constantly pruning out suckers in an attempt to keep it from taking over everything. I am quite drawn to plants that take care of themselves so well and force me to stay present enough to notice when I must whack out something. I can't really expect everyone to understand my love for this plant, so I won't try to explain it. However, I will offer more information at a later date. In the meantime, those of you who are in my region and freaking out over the unusually warm weather -- Relax, Enjoy. Freaking out won't change it. Just enjoy the pretty flowers.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

We've had a busy week full of physical, outdoor labor. The week ended with us unloading bales of straw and hay on Saturday evening.

I knelt on top of the stack of bales in the back of the F-350 truck, getting a rare overview of the garden. The raised beds ran straight and tidy, most of them freshly mulched, and ready for spring planting. In one glance I saw the sharply pruned stand of elderberries and the freshly trimmed and weeded figs. A little ramshackle fence, still under construction, creates a pretend barrier along the back edge of the garden, where I've started to clean up last year's weediness.The sun shone golden through a veil of thin clouds, behind the leaf-bare woods near our house. Towels laundered in the morning still waved on the clothesline. Even the compost area looked attractive from this angle.

The day had been unusually warm for February, above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Almost hot in the middle of the month when 45 degrees usually feels warm. A light breeze brought in cooler air as gray light settled over it all.

An unmistakeable feeling settled into me. Peace. This is why I live here, why I live this life... for these rare moments of peace as the sun yawns and spreads golden light that fades to gray. The peacefulness that follows a day of physical labor spent with the man I love.

I wish I could have taken a photo of that moment to share, but that would have shown nothing of what I felt. A picture can be worth a thousand words, but in moments like these a picture is worthless. All you would be able to see are the things, the surroundings. Invisible are the silence, the sense of home built by a decade of working and loving the land, the barely chill touch of the breeze after a hot day, the memories of cabbages and sweet potatoes and rabbits all raised on this place, the frustrations and triumphs... all of these things and more congealed into a moment of tranquility nestled within a very unpeaceful world.

I would love to bring that peace and tranquility to all of you, but we must find our own peace. Living the country life is not required for one to find this tranquility. Such peacefulness does not come from somewhere outside of us, but from within.
If you find yourself in a state of turmoil because of events occurring around you, whether personal or public, look deep into the twilight on some warm winter evening, or deep into an icy landscape, or deep into anything that surrounds you, even a cityscape, until you find the reflection of your own, true self. Then know peace. Be peace.

Now back to my regularly scheduled frantic pace...
I couldn't bring you a photo of inner peace, so instead I headed this post with something that excites me... baby cabbages newly emerged from their seed enclosures. The earth is stirring, ready to awaken, blades of crocus sprout where soon I will find yellow and purple blossoms. Winter is not gone, but Spring is tugging on its pants, getting ready.
I also hope to later bring you more info about growing those elderberry shrubs I mentioned earlier. I can't promise to tell you anything about growing figs. Even after years of watching the fig trees grow, I still don't know much about cultivating them. I haven't ever gotten a ripe and tasty fig from them. But elderberries, I can tell you things about elderberries.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Brave Little Zinnia

Brave little Zinnia set out one day, dressed in her brown winter garb. She looked out over the frost-burned landscape and frolicked in the snow that December had dropped around her.

The Barefoot Gardener had been barefoot in the garden clear through the middle of November, when brave little Zinnia still wore her bright summer hair. Even though late November brought chillier weather, it still remained quite pleasant for garden tasks.

But the flip of a calendar page brought December and December brought true winter weather (at last, although I did enjoy springlike November). A bit of snow even fell, briefly covering the garden in a thin layer of white.

Brave little Zinnia watched the Barefoot Gardener moving through the garden tucking her winter vegetables in snug and warm-enough so they would feed her until the winter solstice, and perhaps beyond. As frigid temperatures threatened, she harvested those things she had no desire to tuck in, such as the chard and celery, which had miraculously survived some pretty cold nights, but would not hold up when the temperatures dipped into the teens.

Even after such bitter cold and snow, the chard continues to provide graceful architecture in the winter landscape, its brilliant color barely dimmed by the cold, contrasting against the white icing.

And in case you're wondering what's going on beneath the plastic covering over the "low tunnels" in the garden, brave little Zinnia wanted you to see what the Barefoot Gardener was able to harvest just today, almost the middle of December. This basket contains two large green cabbages, a little chinese cabbage, four bok choy, some brussels sprouts greens, cilantro, and broccoli. Another large basket was filled with kale.

More of all these, plus lettuce, arugula, spinach, daikon, radicchio, beets, and mustard greens still wait in the cozy tunnels. A tangy winter solstice salad may be in the making. Barefoot Gardener loves chopping the tender, white center leaves of the Chinese cabbage to mix into lettuce and radicchio salads. More spinach, and leeks sit out the cold in open beds, protected only by a fluffy blanket of hay.

While veggies grow slowly in their chilly plastic homes, the Barefoot Gardener is inside sorting seeds, making lists of needs, perusing catalogs, filling the stove with logs, making plans on her garden maps, taking inadvertent naps, and cooking up the tasty green things. She'd like to spend more time outside in the garden, cleaning up the dried bean vines and crunchy, frozen summer plants, cutting the dead asparagus stalks, and digging zesty horseradish. But she's busy. Anyway it FEELS busy, although she's not ever sure what has been accomplished.

Brave little Zinnia is glad she's not doing much cleanup work yet, as she knows  that she and all her zinnia friends will become compost when Barefoot Gardener gets busy outside. But that's how it goes in this world. And brave little Zinnia is not worried.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Going Under Cover

As we approach the night of the Hard Freeze some preparations must be made. A final harvest goes underway for tender things, such as peppers, beans, etc. Anything that I intend to take into the winter must go under cover.
Most of these cold-hardy things are leafy greens and roots, with the exception of the broccoli. Today (Thursday) I cleaned up the winter beds, removing weeds and yellowed leaves, then mulched it all with fresh hay. At the end of the day several of the beds were put under plastic to hold in enough heat to keep them going when the weather gets cold. However, I'm not posting to say stuff. I'm posting to show you stuff. I try to be humble, but I cannot help but feel a bit proud of how beautiful these vegetables are, so I want to show you a few pics before everything goes under cover,

To your left you can see beets, lettuce, purple mustard and way in the background some lush radicchio. The white plastic pipes bent over the bed now support 6 mil plastic that will serve as a mini-greenhouse to keep these beauties going well into winter. It heats up pretty good when the sun is out, so when days are on the warm side I will have to open the ends to prevent the plants from becoming overheated.

The chard is so gorgeous right now. Look at the vibrancy of color in this red rhubarb chard. I took several pictures of the chard. I couldn't help myself. So beautiful. But you don't want to see a blog full of chard.

Part of the harvest... red beets, white daikon radish, orange carrots. Also in my harvest baskets you could find kale, lettuce, arugula...

And Cabbage! My bare foot for size comparison. Yes I was barefoot in the garden on Nov. 17, but I won't be tomorrow when the chill hits.

Tomorrow (Friday) the harvest will include a few green beans, red raspberries and
chard. Couldn't let the blog go by without showing you one more beautiful chard. After Saturday most of the chard will be gone, except for what I throw blankets over just to get them through the hard freeze until I can make space in the refrigerator for all that chard.

Cooler than summer temps, but an extended season of warmth has been the perfect recipe for all of the cool-season crops, especially members of the cabbage/mustard family. The chinese cabbage and bok choy did wonderfully. I couldn't resist photographing the interesting architecture of this white bok choy.

In the photo below (the last one in this post) you can see some baby bok choy in the background, behind the ruffly lettuces.


I wish I didn't have to tuck them all away so I could just stand and look at them. After we drop our temperature to 25 (the last forecast) we'll have a week with highs in the 50s and lows in the 30s. Technically they could all come out again under those conditions. I might uncover them for the rain that we're supposed to get next week.

Or not. We'll see how lazy I am when  the time comes.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Facing the End

It's not every year that I can barefoot garden during the second week of November. Everything in the garden has loved the extended warm season. The billowy mounds of nasturtiums (above) just kept growing and growing, overflowing the raised beds like rising bread dough gone out of control. We picked and picked and picked the colorful and tasty flowers, gathering armloads (ok, just handfuls) of blossoms for every meal. They made even ho-hum dishes look fabulous.

This photo is what they looked like a couple of weeks ago, before they reached their peak growth. Since then, frosty weather has trimmed them a bit. I covered most of them against the frost, but when the two mornings of below-freezing temps came, even those tucked in beneath sheets and blankets got burned a bit. Those that were not covered have melted into a mess. We're still picking blossoms off of the plants that were covered, though.

This weekend, all that will come to an end. Right now our Sunday morning temperature is forecast at 25 degrees Fahrenheit (several degrees below zero for you Celsius fans). I'm not even going to try. Goodbye nasturtiums...

And goodbye bell peppers, so lovely and sweet. I will grudgingly pick the green ones before Friday night (because it's going to be 27 degrees F. on Saturday morning). The green beans have already gone to a better place, as have a few other things.

And this week I'm winterizing those things that I intend to take into winter -- Cabbages, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, kale, lettuce, beets, carrots, spinach, daikons, radicchio, arugula, purple mustard... who have I forgotten?

Tomorrow I start draping plastic over the beds, after watering and then mulching with hay. How sweet it was, this extended season. But that sweetness will soon end. Then it's on to another season.

Tomorrow I will take photos of all the lovelies before they get covered. I hope I will also post them tomorrow. Tonight you will just have to dream about the beautiful lettuce and vibrant purple mustard, Sweet dreams.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Summer Without Butterflies

If you've ever wondered what the world would be like without the colorful whimsy of butterflies, you sort of found out if you lived in northeast Kansas this summer. (May have been the same in other parts of Kansas and the Midwest, but I only know about northeast Kansas.)

The dearth of butterflies was quite noticeable. Several people mentioned it to me, beginning in the spring. Even the Hackberry Emperor, which rises from driveways and sidewalks in clouds as you walk or drive, was noticeably lacking. The Cabbage White Butterfly, the one whose larvae devour cabbage family plants, made few appearances (yay!?). The lavender usually teems with butterflies of one kind or another when in bloom, but went undisturbed by fluttering wings.

Only a handful of local butterflies flitted their way across my garden.
Cloudless Sulphur going in for a landing.

Then sometime in mid- to late September -- as the hummingbirds abandoned the Lady in Red Salvia in my garden and hummed southward -- a fluttering of yellow appeared at the red blossoms. Butterflies that I tentatively identified as the Cloudless Sulphur (such a poetic name)
arrived, having wandered from Texas or some other southern state in typical haphazard fashion. They don't reproduce here because our winters are too cold for larval survival, but they wander up here anyway. Incidentally, Lady in Red Salvia is native to the southern U.S. and southward. I guess this looked like home to the Cloudless Sulphur.

Strange weather here, which was too warm, too cold, too wet, too hot, too dry... bouncy, bouncy, bouncy... most likely created the remarkable dearth of butterflies this year. However, they and other insect species have been on a decline due to overuse of pesticides and loss of habitat. We are losing populations of native plant species that feed our butterfly larvae. Plant more natives. Reduce your use of pesticides. Protect wild areas. I can tell you without a doubt that a world without butterflies is less colorful, and seems less magical. So do what you can. Do as a friend of mine does and encourage each butterfly you see. And while you're at it, bless the bees, too.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Falling into Autumn, and Stuff...

Lady in Red Salvia
September... and bird migrations are underway or just about to begin. We're in the middle of the hummingbird migration at this point. According to another blogger the adult ruby throated hummingbirds have left town and the "teenagers" are still hanging around.

One such teenager hangs around our place, taking sustenance from the masses of Lady in Red Salvia that spring up in our flower beds. I love these brilliant cousins to the garden sage. I received a packet of seeds from a friend several years ago, and since then I have not had to scatter any more seed. Lady in Red self sows prolifically and creates a spectacular late season show that inspires my heart and gives the hummingbirds food to fight over.

When we take our meals on the porch we frequently see the current hummer resident sitting atop a tomato cage a dozen or so feet from one cluster of Lady in Red. It occasionally swoops in to get a snack, then heads back to its perch to guard the flowers from any other "teens" that might want a sip. If another hummingbird dares to try to steal a sip we hear a mighty buzz (from the millions of wingbeats) and perhaps some chirps as the argument ensues.

Even in the rain the little bird sits on its perch or flies and hovers momentarily around the flowers in search of nectar. The particular tomato cage it sits on is empty. I could have taken it to winter storage with the other tomato cages, except for the hummingbird. I've pretty much given up on the tomatoes, except for the Sun Golds, a couple of paste tomatoes and one Henderson's Pink. And some of those
may come down in  a couple of weeks, long before frost threatens. It hasn't been a great year for tomatoes, although I do have a number of jars of roasted Black Plum tomatoes in the freezer, and three containers of dried paste tomatoes and two containers of dried Sun Golds in the pantry.

Aside from the weather slowing things down and aggravating the usual disease conditions, tomato hornworms ate up a lot of the foliage, leaving naked stems. The first hornworm I found got tossed into the woods, the next two I left in place because they looked like this....(look left)

Those little white things are cocoons (yes they do look like eggs, but they're not) of one species of braconid wasps that has an affinity for tomato and tobacco hornworms. These parasitoid wasps lay their eggs inside the caterpillars. When the larvae hatch, they feed on the internal organs of the caterpillar then emerge through the caterpillar's skin and spin their tiny cocoons. Four or so days later, they emerge as adult wasps. Not fun for the caterpillar. I left this guy in place because I knew it wouldn't eat much more before melting away. The tomato hornworm is the larval form of one type of hawk moth --or is it a sphinx moth while the tobacco hornworm turns into the hawk moth -- something like that.

Other species of braconid wasps parasitize various other garden pests -- one Web site mentioned squash bugs... oh if only they'd parasitize the squash bugs "visiting" my garden.

In spite of the squash bugs, however, I still have some relatively healthy summer squash plants producing in the garden. One is Lemon Squash, which produces fruit the shape, size and color of -- you guessed it -- lemons. A neighbor gave me the seed saying that it seems to stand up to the squash bugs well, and indeed it has. One of the other plants is a yellow crookneck squash, which I had noticed in a previous year did not keel over from squash bug attack as quickly as other summer squashes. I've been picking the crooknecks very young, fearful that the plant will die before the fruit gets much size. But so far, so good.

The third type is a green scallop squash, which I planted because I happened to have the seed. I think one reason these squashes have held up is that I water them quite regularly. At least every other day a couple of dishpans full of water get dumped on them, as they are in a convenient location. Next year I'll try that tactic again, adding row cover in the early stages to prevent squash vine borer, and delay the attack of cucumber beetles and squash bugs. This year's squash were planted in late June, past the time when vine borers lay their eggs. Maybe I'll get enough squash to put in the freezer next year. Maybe. Possibly. You never know. I try not to get too attached to my squashes.
Far left, Yellow Crookneck; middle, Lemon Squash; front, Green Scallop Squash. The green striped ones are immature Luffa Gourds, which are edible in this stage. If left to mature, they get tough and when you strip away the skin and seeds you are left with the luffa (aka louffa) "sponge" popular as natural exfoliating bath sponges.